County election officials have one word for Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed Pennsylvania state budget and its $15 million for new, more secure voting machines.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Philadelphia City Commissioner Lisa Deeley, a Democrat who chairs the election agency.
“I am deeply disappointed in the numbers being proposed,” said Forrest K. Lehman, elections director in Lycoming County.
“That was a bit disappointing today,” said Jeff Greenburg, elections director for Mercer County.
The problem, they and others said, is that the proposed $15 million makes but a small dent in the estimated $125 million to $150 million cost for counties to comply with a state order to replace their voting machines by 2020 with modern, more secure models. Wolf is requesting that the $15 million continue for five years, for a total of $75 million, and a spokesperson said the governor is committed to seeing that staggered funding become reality while also working on other funding options.
“We can’t bank on that. Let me put it that way,” Greenburg said.
Budget politics in Harrisburg can be tricky and there are no guarantees. And officials said five years isn’t fast enough for some counties who are struggling to front the money to buy new machines now.
“There are counties that a five-year state repayment is perfectly acceptable,” said Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. "They have the cash flow and can withstand it. But at the other end of the spectrum, we know there are counties that don’t have the reserves set aside. They can’t do the payment right now and be satisfied that within five years they’ll get it.”
Wolf’s Pennsylvania Department of State last year ordered voting systems replaced by the 2020 primary with machines that leave a paper trail of votes cast. County officials and election-integrity advocates applaud the goal of having systems that are less vulnerable to hacking and provide a tangible record of votes.
They just don’t know how to pay for it.
Right now, the only money available is a $13.5 million federal grant that required a state match of $674,000, for a total of $14.1 million. If the $15 million is approved in this year’s budget, that would leave about $95.9 million for counties to raise, with hopes that the state provides more money in the future.
“I certainly appreciate that the governor has to prioritize the money," Deeley said, "but when you’re asking counties to implement a new voting system in such a short period of time with no resources to do that, that’s certainly a heavy ask. Basically, what you’re looking at, you can call it an unfunded mandate from the governor, to have a new system in place with a verifiable paper trail by 2020 with basically no financial assistance in that process.”
Marian Schneider, president of the nonprofit election-security group Verified Voting, said that Wolf’s budget request was inadequate and that instead lawmakers should come together across party lines and fund the new machines.
“I don’t think this sends the correct message from the administration, but I think there’s an opportunity here for the legislature to step up,” said Schneider, who worked as deputy elections secretary and an adviser in the Wolf administration. “Here’s an opportunity for the legislature to say, ‘Look, we get this, this is now a national security issue, this is not a political issue, and we need to put funding here because it’s for all of us. It’s about democracy.’ ”
Funding has weighed heavily on the minds of election officials since the Department of State order. In a report last week, a bipartisan commission studying the state’s election security named as its first recommendation replacing the voting machines. The second: “The Pennsylvania General Assembly and the federal government should help counties purchase secure voting systems.”
In an email to county officials Tuesday, after the governor unveiled his budget proposal, state Elections Commissioner Jonathan M. Marks acknowledged those concerns, writing that “it has been clear that funding the purchase of new voting systems was your biggest concern, while sharing a commitment to the federal government’s and security experts’ urging that all voters should be voting on the most secure, auditable, accessible, and resilient voting machines available.”
J.J. Abbott, the governor’s spokesperson, said that the funding is divided over multiple years “because the administration is working with vendors on payment scheduling” and that Wolf, who has pledged to have state funding cover at least half the upgrade costs, would continue to find ways to do so.
“Governor Wolf is committed to working to maintain this funding on an annual basis over his term,” Abbott said. “We believe with financing options, this will meet the needs of counties buying new machines.”
In his note to county officials, Marks asked them to continue advocating for funding with state and federal lawmakers. Officials said they would do that but wondered why the governor wasn’t doing more to help.
“If this was really a priority of the governor, why didn’t he speak about it to the [General] Assembly? He didn’t do that,” Lehman said.
“County election officials, we feel like we have been failed by everybody at the state and federal level,” he said. “Everybody has left us out to dry.”